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Attacks in US by students on teachers rise

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-06-06 11:08
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Six-year-old boy shoots his teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, Jan 6, 2023. [Photo/VCG]

A 6-year-old Virginia student shot his teacher, nearly killing her, in January. In February, a 6-foot-6-inch Florida student stomped on a teacher's aide over the student's Nintendo Switch. In April, a Texas high school student punched his teacher over cell phone use in a class.

Such violence by students against educators has been on the rise across the US, as students have returned to in-person learning after studying online for a year during the pandemic.

Some observers blame lax discipline in school, some point to the pandemic's psychological impact on students and some blame parents for always siding with their children against teachers. Regardless of the cause, it seems that in today's America, teaching has become a hazardous profession.

A 6-year-old student brought a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to the Newport News School in Virginia and intentionally shot teacher Abigail Zwerner. The bullet punctured her left hand, striking through to her chest. She had to undergo multiple surgeries.

In Florida's Flagler County, 17-year-old, 270-pound student Brendan Depa of Matanzas High School, assaulted Joan Naydich, a teacher's aide, pushing her to the floor because she took away his game console. The student pushed her so hard that Naydich, physically much smaller than Depa, was knocked unconscious.

Depa then stomped on her, and bent down to punch Naydich in the body and back of the head approximately 18 times. He tried to kick her while being pulled away by school staff members.

In Houston's Lamar High School, a 15-year-old student refused to participate in a theatre class, and was using his cell phone. When teacher Steve Carpentier told him that he couldn't use the phone in the class and requested that he hand it over, the student punched him in his face. The student had been suspended for fighting shortly before the incident.

Educators across the country have said that such violent incidents directed toward them have increased since the school resumed in-person teaching, post-pandemic.

A survey conducted last year by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that one-third of teachers reported that they had experienced at least one incident of verbal harassment or threat of violence from students.

In the survey of nearly 15,000 primary school administrators, teachers and counselors, about 18 percent of school psychologists and social workers, 15 percent of school administrators and 22 percent of other school staff reported at least one incident of student violence.

The survey found that 72 percent of teachers said they find work stressful, compared to 38 percent before the pandemic.

Nearly half of the teachers – 49 percent – were contemplating quitting or changing their jobs. Many respondents described the violence they face as "on-going and pervasive".

According to the New York Post, Daniel Buck quit working at a public school in Wisconsin to work at a Christian school, saying that the policies adopted by school boards meant that schools "without boundaries and consequences" were "descending into chaos".

Buck was referring to a new practice of school discipline called restorative justice. About 20 states have implemented the system, and Texas implemented it in 2015.

Restorative justice is a gentler approach to student discipline, and typically involves fewer school suspensions or expulsions. It focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment, by having students meet with those whom their actions have affected, to talk about their issues, or to meet with counselors to reach a solution.

Sucker-punched teacher Carpentier told the Post that students are now often getting "a slap on the hand" or "in-school suspension", instead of more serious consequences. "How much of that really teaches them anything?" he asked.

Many others cite unmet mental-health needs and social disruption during the pandemic as causes for the increasingly violent behavior of students.

Charles White, a writer and teacher living in the Midwest, has witnessed violent acts against teachers.

"I've seen a teacher bitten. I've witnessed teachers being pushed. I've watched teachers have tables thrown at them," he wrote on Medium, an online publishing platform.

White thinks that lack of academic achievement is the root cause for student violence and that the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. "Looking back on the past three years, I believe school violence will continue to rise," he wrote.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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